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EU: British EU Presidency Opens Under Stormy Skies

All was not so pretty behind the scenes at the EU summit in mid-June Britain takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union at a moment when the union is facing one of its most difficult challenges in years. Britain is at odds with the other 24 EU members about how to finance the long-term budget, and Prime Minister Tony Blair is being blamed by some for the collapse of acrimonious negotiations. In addition, Blair is promising to pursue a sharply reformist economic course during the six-month presidency, along lines opposed by some other EU members.

Prague, 30 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- At worst, it could all end in flaming rows and deeper divisions in the European Union. At best, it could mark the start of a new direction for a modernized EU.

Prime Minister Blair assumes the EU Presidency tomorrow with his customary vigor, projecting a vision of renewal in the 50-year-old European Union. In a keynote speech to the European Parliament on 23 June, Blair said the EU must keep in step with a changing world or it will dwindle away.

But he received a frosty reception from the European Parliament, which had the previous day heard a speech by the outgoing president, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, accusing Blair of deliberate obstruction in the budget negotiations, and lack of "solidarity."

The budget talks collapsed when Blair refused to consider any cut in Britain's multibillion-euro annual rebate unless there were also cuts in farm spending. All 24 other EU members opposed Blair on the rebate issue. Under the present arrangement, even the poor eastern European members will have to contribute millions of euros to Britain, one of the EU's richest countries. The rebate is meant to compensate Britain for the fact that its farmers do not receive support payments as big as many continental farmers do.

Despite Blair's confident call for deep reforms, little of basic importance is likely to change in the coming six months. It seems impossible for Britain to act as an honest broker in the budget negotiations, as it is one of the main protagonists.

As Mario Incerti, a senior analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, put it, Blair so far has been broad on vision but short on specifics. He said Blair's keynote speech was not even aimed at those EU leaders with whom he clashed so bitterly in the failed budget negotiations.
"Blair is inclined to make sure his EU presidency can be seen as an opportunity; it provides him with the chance to present himself as a serious leader."

"The kind of things he was going to say were targeting a different leadership than the current one at the European level, in particular he was sending a message to the future breed of politicians in France and Germany," Incerti said.

According to Incerti, Blair is planting a seed which could grow in the years ahead. Blair wants a modernized Europe that spends more on research, science, and education -- and less on supporting farmers.

Achieving movement toward such a transition would be complicated enough. But Blair also stands firmly for further enlargement of the EU, a slimmed-down social state, and less security for workers at a time when these very ideas appear to be disturbing West Europeans.

"It's a kind of paradox that became clear on [29 May], the night of the French referendum, when the French voters rejected the constitutional treaty because it was not social enough, and [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw went on television to say that we should address the concerns of the citizens and make this a more liberal Europe," Incerti said.

To that extent, Blair the politician is displaying the same kind of wishful thinking that he showed in insisting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction long after that position became untenable.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has called for the will of the voters as displayed in the French and Dutch constitution referendums to be taken into account and for the enlargement plans to be reconsidered.

But Senior analyst Dick Leurdyk of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations in The Hague said he is not pessimistic about the coming presidency, despite the potential for things to go wrong.

Leurdyk said Blair's own personality, his desire for a place in history, will ensure success.

"He likes to present himself as a leader," Leurdyk said. "There is a similarity [with] the Group of Eight meeting [which Blair will head in July], where he seeks to present himself as a world leader by activating the problems of Africa on the G-8 agenda. Similarly, he is inclined to make sure his EU presidency can be seen as an opportunity; it provides him with the chance to present himself as a serious leader."

British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in Prague on 29 June as part of a tour of new member states, avoided the visionary approach and spoke in practical terms of the possibilities ahead. He acknowledged that no solution will survive unless it has the broad consensus of the 25 states.

"I think we can find a way forward," Prescott said. "What I can't promise is that the thing would come overnight, that's the nature of the change we're involved in. But the challenge for the politicians is to find how we progress through that change, what kind of change we want, and in the British presidency we intend to make that debate and make that start."